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Poor Man’s Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planter

2 liter soda bottle topsy turvy tomato planterI got the idea of doing a do-it-yourself “Topsy-Turvy” planter from Camille Lewis’ blog. I modified the design a little and just smashed in the top of a 2 liter root beer bottle rather than cutting it off, inverting it, and hot gluing it back on. The result isn’t gorgeous, but I think I’m in for some good tomatoes.

Not that I really need any more tomatoes. I planted 10 tomato bushes this year and the one that sprouted earliest already has 27 tomatoes on it. But it would be interesting to see if this method of planting really keeps away the normal soil-borne diseases and pests that you get with in-ground tomatoes. And I’d like to see if I can keep it growing indoors throughout the winter.

So this is just a little experiment.

Update: I would definitely use a larger bottle than a 2-liter soda bottle. It just wasn’t enough to effectively support a lot of growth. So something more like a 15 quart pot would do. Also, I’d probably add a bunch of sphagnum moss to the pot to allow for more water retention (as a less organic option, I hear styrofoam chunks may also work). I had to water the pot every day and the plant still got a fair amount of drought stress.

Sort of a Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

This is the story of a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew… and of how our family was changed by our first year of deliberately eating food produced from the same place where we worked, went to school, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.

Barbara Kingsolver

So what happens when a family decides to become die-hard “locavores”—growing or raising all their own food (or buying locally-grown organic items)? That’s the premise of this wonderful book by Barbara Kingsolver.

cover of Animal Vegetable MiracleI’ve had people who, once they saw what I was reading, asked “How in the world do you write a book that big about that?” It does seem like a bit of a stretch, but let me tell you I have rarely enjoyed reading a book so much. Kingsolver is a successful novelist, and if you’ve ever read any of her novels, you’re familiar with her poetic soul, her off-hand way of turning a phrase, or her ability to find beauty in the oddest of places. Those elements are all present here and make what could have been a dry, preachy book into something akin to reading an artist’s biography.

Kingsolver’s lucky enough to own about 100 acres of land in the mountains of Virginia. But she doesn’t live in a mcmansion on those 100 acres. She (and her husband and 2 children) have kept the old farmhouse pretty much as it was for the past 100 years… poorly insulated, wood-burning stove, single bathroom, and, oh yes, gardens, orchards, and livestock. They fed their family of 4 for an entire year by raising a huge assortment of heirloom vegetables and fruits, keeping chickens and turkeys, and visiting their local farmer’s market for anything they couldn’t grow themselves. Along the way, they threw a huge 50th birthday party for Barbara (including dozens of friends from all over the country who were treated to a weekend of locavore cuisine), traveled all the way up to Canada (without breaking their convictions to eat only local food), and survived the winter with the (literal) fruits of their labor stored in jars and hanging from rafters.

But to give you a better feel for it, I’d rather just quote some passages:

Once you start cooking, one thing leads to another. A new recipe is as exciting as a blind date. A new ingredient, heaven help me, is an intoxicating affair. I’ve grown new vegetables just to see what they taste like: Jerusalem artichokes, edamame, potimarrons. A quick recipe can turn slow in our kitchen because of the experiments we hazard. We make things from scratch just to see if we can. We’ve rolled out and cut our pasta, raised turkeys to roast or stuff into link sausage, made chutney from our garden. On high occasions we’ll make cherry pies with crisscrossed lattice tops and raviolo with crimped edges, for the satisfaction of seeing those storybook comforts become real.

Barbara Kingsolver

When I was in college, living two states away from my family, I studied the map one weekend and found a different route home from the one we usually travelled. I drove back to Kentucky the new way, which did turn out to be faster. During my visit I made sure all my relatives heard about the navigational brilliance that saved me thirty-seven minutes.

‘Thirty-seven,’ my grandfather mused. ‘And here you just used up fifteen of them telling all about it. What’s your plan for the other twenty-two?’

Good question. I’m still stumped for an answer, whenever the religion of time-saving pushes me to zip through a meal or a chore, rushing everybody out the door to the next point on a schedule. All that hurry can blur the truth that life is a zero-sum equation. Every minute I save will get used on something else, possibly no more sublime than staring at the newel post trying to remember what I just ran upstairs for. On the other hand, attending to the task in front of me—even a quotidian chore—might make it into part of a good day, rather than just a rock in the road to someplace else.

Barbara Kingsolver

Every gardener I know is a junkie for the experience of being out there in the mud and fresh green growth. Why? An astute therapist might diagnose us as codependent and sign us up for Tomato-Anon meetings. We love our gardens so much it hurts. For their sake we’ll bend over till our backs ache, yanking out fistfuls of quackgrass by the roots as if we are tearing out the hair of the world. We lead our favorite hoe like a dance partner down one long row and up the next, in a dance marathon that leaves us exhausted. We scrutinize the yellow beetles with black polka dots that have suddenly appeared like chickenpox on the bean leaves. We spend hours bent to our crops as if enslaved, only now and then straightening our backs and wiping a hand across our sweaty brow, leaving it striped with mud like some child’s idea of war paint.

Barbara Kingsolver

Emily and I have always loved to garden, but reading this book has infused me with big time plant lust. I’m serious. Kingsolver talks a lot about heirloom variety vegetables—older vegetable and fruit species which have retained the oddities of flavor, color, and shape that grocery store varieties have had bred out of them (it’s more important to grocery stores that your tomato can survive a trip from New Zealand and 2 weeks on the shelf looking perfectly round, red, and spotless than that it taste good). Just look at some of these amazing varieties available from the Seed Saver’s Exchange:


green sausage, wapsipinicon peach, striped cavern, and lemon plum tomatoes


five color silverbeet, Reine des Glaces, Red Velvet, and Red Leprechaun lettuce


sweet siberian, blacktail mountain, golden midget, and Van Doren Moon and Stars watermelons


purple peruvian, german butterball, all blue, and la ratte potatoes

With all the wild varieties available, it makes you wonder if “tomato” denotes as wide a variety of flavors as, say, “candy” or “soup.” I feel like someone who’s rejected coffee all his life because he’s only tasted coffee crystals. Now I’m looking through the equivalent of a Gevalia catalog, trying to restrain myself from ordering everything in it.

So, if you’ve got a little plot of land in your back yard, read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, order some seeds from the Seed Saver’s Exchange catalog, and have fun watching plants grow.

Floating Jello Discovers its True Condition

I’ve had a very full weekend. Will & Alison were down from Greenville and they dropped off a lot of their books & artwork for storage over the next few years while they’re at St. Andrews in Scotland. We also took them out to the Lil’ River Grill, a gourmet restaurant in Lawrenceville that I can get 50% discounts at through work. They’d recently changed their menu and the evening was, like our evening a year ago at The Marketplace, a food revelation. As the weekend has progressed, it’s becoming a much bigger revelation.

Chateau Elan and its vineyard See, they also, in addition to the wonderful conversation over the weekend, gave Emily and me a 2-night stay at the Chateau Elan Spa (complete with meals, massages, facials, gifts… the works). It’s an incredible gift and as I’ve been looking through the brochure for Chateau Elan, I’ve been realizing how wonderful and how new all this gourmet food, fine lodging, and spa treatment is. You know, I grew up fairly poor. Red Lobster was a gourmet treat for us. To have a $200, mind-expanding dinner and then receive the gift certificate for a spa with more sumptuous amenities and services than I ever thought I would experience on this earth… all in one weekend… and then to go to church listening to Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, and then hear several Dan Forest arrangements that the choir was practicing… to put it mildly… I’m overwhelmed.

I talked with Emily this evening about how I’m still, after all these years, having a hard time coming to grips with God’s goodness. I have a beautiful wife, a wonderful healthy baby boy coming in a month to a fully-furnished nursery in a huge and beautiful house. I have a good, steady job. I have friends that most people would trade years of their life for—friends who challenge me, better me, and then lavish me with good things… from spa treatments to surprise CDs off my wishlist. I have a good job with extensive benefits. I have a church where people care about me and where I have outlets to serve. I’ve been protected by the Lord from wrecking my life (please understand how amazing that is). I’ve been given Christ’s righteousness in place of my sin—an abundant pardon far greater than mere forgiveness.

It’s times like this when I realize that, in the story Christ told of the servant who was hired for a day’s wage, and then, throughout the day, other servants were hired for the same amount, well… I’m the eleventh hour servant. I’m the one getting all the breaks. And I never expected that to be a difficult position to be in. I figured those servants had it easy and the others had it hard. But the difficulty of the last servant is in admitting that it’s entirely the Master’s generosity that gave him his wages. They (I) don’t want to realize that. If it’s only God’s generosity that gives you the good you have, then it takes that nice, firm slab of self-righteousness out from under you and you’re revealed as the wriggling little blob of Jello that you always were, incapable of standing on your own. The first servants have to consciously reject that false but firming slab of suffering self-righteousness and trust in God’s goodness. The last servants, though, have no suffering to stand on. They can feel the stares of servants who’ve had it much harder than they. My life is naked and open to the eyes of people like my parents or grandparents, who had it much harder than I.

It’s much like that quote by Rob Bell that I posted in my review of Velvet Elvis:

I was having breakfast with my dad and my younger son at the Real Food Cafe on Eastern Avenue just south of Alger in Grand Rapids. We were finishing our meal when I noticed that the waitress brought our check and then took it away and then brought it back again. She placed it on the table, smiled, and said, “Somebody in the restaurant paid for your meal. You’re all set.” And then she walked away.

I had the strangest feeling sitting there. The feeling was helplessness. There was nothing I could do. It had been taken care of. To insist on paying would have been pointless. All I could do was trust that what she said was true was actually true and then live in that. Which meant getting up and leaving the restaurant.

I really do feel helpless. Helpless in front of a Power intent on doing me good despite all my secret inner protests to the contrary. I believe I can hack it on my own—that I deserve some pain and, by golly, I’m going to pay my pound of flesh so that I can be self-satisfied. The trouble is that unrelenting goodness never hands over the knife. “I’m not asking you to repay,” it says. “You can’t. And I never want you to try.”

Babette prepares her feast It reminds me of Babette’s Feast, a movie that I think I need to run out and buy right away. A refugee from Paris, who happens to be the best chef in the whole city (and, therefore, the world), hides with a strict religious sect in the Netherlands. This sect always prepares food as though it were entirely something to eat in pain, wincing out thanks that the body could live one more day on bread and water. The chef (Babette), announces that she would like to prepare a meal for the sect, and she prepares her most exquisite recipes for the feast. In the process, buying the most rare and lavish ingredients, she also uses up every penny of her considerable life savings. She sacrifices everything so that self-flagellating people could break out of their belief that their own pain makes them virtuous.

It’s a hard belief to relinquish. Just last Sunday, I taught Sunday school, trying to explain—in my short-circuited-brain sort of way—how God loves us so much that He rejoices to do us good… that He abundantly pardons, not says “Well, okay. I’ll forgive you, you ungrateful sinner.” It’s been an idea boring its way into my mind for a few months now, and yet this weekend, I prove to myself that I really still don’t understand it. What if it is God’s generosity that lays my lines in exceedingly pleasant places? Do I find fault with God for not putting me through pain? Can God’s purposes be accomplished with pleasure rather than pain?

On Wednesday night, we read a passage in 2 Samuel where David said “Thy gentleness hath made me great.” It wasn’t really part of Pastor Sweatt’s sermon, but it caught my attention. Do I really understand God’s love for me? Or do I, like Andrew Peterson has said, fear that “His love is no better than mine”?

Well, I don’t want this to simply be me questioning myself in front of others. My intention in writing is to work out some of these ideas and to encourage whomever may be reading that… it appears… that God frequently blesses us almost beyond what we can contain simply because He loves us and wants us to know something about what He Himself is like. He doesn’t scrimp. He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t say “that gift is too big” or “it costs too much.” He didn’t spare His own Son, but gave Him up so that evil people could be rich in every good thing for all eternity.

He loves me, oh, He loves me, He does.

THIS is a journey… into soup.

I had another food adventure, this time at the Lil’ River Grill in downtown Lawrenceville. It’s what I would call a semi-gourmet restaurant (certainly more culinarily advanced than, say, Macaroni Grill, but still not quite a full-fledged duck-breast-vichysoisse-soufflé kind of gourmet restaurant). Once again, I must record my food firsts:

  • shrimp, potato, & red pepper chowder
  • pecorino & blue crab
  • (real) mozarella with heirloom tomatoes, sea salt, sweet basil, oilve oil, and some sort of potent vinaigrette
  • mascarpone cheesecake with blackberry glaze

Interior of the Lil River GrillEmily raved that the mascarpone cheescake was the best cheescake she’s ever had. It was served in a bowl with the crust in the bottom of the bowl, then the cheese filling, then two thin buttery-crispy-flaky-cookie-thingies (I have an extensive gourmet vocabulary) stuck edgewise on top with blackberries and blackberry glaze filling the space between the two cookies. Yum. Getting hungry again.

Actually, one of the nicest things about the restaurant was the interior decoration, which used the natural brick of the old building it was located in to good effect. The pictures on their site are a surprisingly lame depiction of how nice it is inside.

One of the best things about this food adventure was the price. I got some “Dining Perks” dollars through Turner which I could use at the restaurant. They work like this: you buy the dollars like a gift certificate (good at a bunch of different restaurants), but you’re buying them at a discount. In Turner’s case, it’s a 50% discount. So, at a semi-gourmet restaurant, we got off with appetizers, entrées, and desserts for two people for $30. There’s nothing so nice as going to a nice restaurant where I like the food and Emily likes the price.

Vichysoisse, Pomme Fondants, Chiffonade, and Other Uncomfortable Foods.

Emily and I spent this past Labor Day weekend with Will & Alison at the Highlands Lake Inn in North Carolina. In between lying around, our half day of prayer, and getting apples, we went to various wonderful restaurants in Asheville. Will & Alison (& Emily) are all far more gourmet than I am, but I had a great time trying all the wonderful goodies. We went to The Marketplace and the Tupelo Honey Cafe. Since I’m such a loser about avoiding vegetables, new foods, etc., I decided to list all the new things I tried:

  • gorgonzola cheese
  • potato & leek vichysoisse
  • sweet potato corn bread
  • espresso barbeque sauce (on smoked pork)
  • wood grilled sockeye salmon
  • hickory smoked duck breast (medium)
  • bordelaise sauce
  • grand marnier souffle
  • banana rum sauce
  • Francois Leclerc pinot noir (2 sips)
  • baby squash & baby zucchini
  • lava cake

Country breakfast at Tupelo honey Cafe

This sort of thing is big for me to record because it represents major steps in my palette improvement. I tend to be a pizza, pasta, and cheeseburger kind of guy—not from preference, but from necessity since I don’t like much else. So going to fine restaurants where no selection on the menu is comfortable or “normal” (menu item: Lemon Grass Marinated Grilled Shrimp over Couscous with Hazelnut Oil, Local Greens, Almonds and Moroccan Spiced Yogurt, etc.) is something of a character building experience. An expensive one, but necessary.

Will’s said he’s writing a book on eating and drinking to the glory of God. I guess you could say I’m trying to expand my food appreciation now instead of later so that I don’t get terribly convicted when I read his book.